Friday, 28 May 2010

Women beware women

Lovely lovely National Theatre! It's not just the great plays, but the whole experience of the place is thoroughly pleasurable. There's the spacious, lounge-like foyer, where you can have a pre play drink or meal, while listening to a live band (incidentally, the bands are usually jazzy, and pretty good, and you can just wander in from the Southbank to listen, if you so desire). And, unlike most of the West End theatres I've visited, there's loads of loos! The Olivier theatre, with it's revolving stage and seats offering excellent views, is a delight. We had seats in the stalls where it felt like we were right in the action, for only £15. I wonder if this is all deliberate to put you in a mellow, receptive frame of mind for seeing a play...

And what of the play? Well, Women Beware Women, written by Thomas Middleton, a contemporary of Shakespeare, is surprisingly bold in the themes it covers: incest, greed, corruption and rape. The director, Marianne Elliott, has chosen to do a modern dress version, set in the 1950s. When I've seen plays of this period set in the modern era, it's always emphasised in some way an aspect of the text, eg Kevin Spacey's Richard II, featuring modern media, underlined that rulers only rule through selling themselves well to those who support them. But with this, it wasn't obvious why Elliott had chosen the 50s, in fact we ended up having an interesting discussion about this with a complete stranger during the interval visit to the aforementioned loos. I could only think it was because of the familiar 50s theme of the glorification of a woman's role at home gave a twist to the female roles in this play, particularly that of Bianca, who is a runaway bride kept under lock and key while her young spouse is away working, until she, unluckliy for all, catches the eye of Florence's lascivious Duke, who then exercises his power to have her for his own. Also, in the pre sexual revolution 50s marriage was ostensibly the way of fulfillment for men and women, while all the time all and sundry were shagging their brains out with anyone and everyone, as long as it remained secret (or so I'm told by those who were there). And it was the era of cool modern jazz and sophistication, so this staging of the play borrows the feeling of a cocktail lounge with some superb accompanying live jazz. The musicians gallery was just alongside us and it was fascinating to watch them at work, as completetly a part of the play as the actors were.

One of the pleasure of the theatre is seeing actors who are familiar from countless appearances in tv drama and films really flexing their acting muscles in challenging roles. Harriet Walters is one such, a face you know you've seen somewhere before. She's utterly mesmerising as the manipulative Livia, a woman so corrupted by life in Florence's high society, that she arranges the incestuous seduction of her niece, Isabella, not to mention the rape and subsequent fall of Bianca. She's like the Marquise de Merteuil from Dangerous Liaisons but to the power of 10. There is a crucial scene, where Livia plays chess with Bianca's mother-in-law, to distract her from protecting the vulnerable young girl, and the game is not only a symbol for the power play going on throughout the play, but the bawdy double meanings of many of the lines give away the moral vacuum at the heart of this society.

Like most tragedies of the period that I've seen or read, morality wins out and all the wrongdoers are slain, the stage is strewn with bodies at the end. The only main character left standing is the boring but virtuous cardinal. But this is rescued from farce by its hallucinatory setting, which is compelling to watch. I'd definitely recommend you to get a ticket before this ends next month, and enjoy a very theatrical night out.

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